How much do you know about the sugar in your diet?

Sugar has received a lot of bad press. It has been linked with obesity, tooth decay and Type 2 Diabetes. Earlier this year a major report from government advisers on nutrition told the nation to reduce the amount of sugar eaten1.

What is sugar?

Sugars are carbohydrates, made from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. There are three main types of sugar - monosaccharides (one sugar unit), di-saccharides (two sugar units) and polysaccharides (many sugar units linked together).

The most common sugars in the diet are:

  • monosaccharides - glucose and fructose
  • disaccharides - sucrose and lactose
  • polysaccharides - starch, pectin, glycogen

Some sugars are found naturally in food such as glucose and fructose contained in fruit. Other sugars are added to food.

What is the nutritional value of sugar?

One gram of any sugar provides approximately 4kcal (17kJ) of energy. A kcal is understood as a calorie. Sugars are a concentrated source of energy in the diet. Pure sugar contains no other nutrient. It is simply a source of energy.

The brain and muscles require a constant supply of glucose to function properly. It is important to note glucose is best obtained from breaking down carbohydrate rich foods, such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice which contain other nutrients rather than foods high in sugar.

The main source of glucose is carbohydrate but it can also be synthesised from protein. If the diet is low in carbohydrate, a greater percentage of dietary protein is used to provide glucose.

What is the problem with sugar?

Sugar is an energy dense, highly palatable ingredient and can easily be over consumed especially when combined with fat. Processed foods such as confectionary, biscuits, cakes and drinks contain a lot of sugar. Most people over consume sugar without realising how much they have eaten. This can result in excess energy (kcals) stored as fat in the body, leading to obesity and its associated health problems, such as Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.

In addition sugar is cariogenic - which means it contributes to dental worries.

Why is sugar added to so many foods?

The sugar content of the diet has increased in recent years because more people eat processed food which can be high in sugar. Sugar is added to processed food to make it sweeter and to improve its texture and structure.

Sugar facts

A can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi contains the equivalent of nine teaspoonfuls of sugar. Most supermarket-brand carbonated drinks have between nine and 13 teaspoonfuls per can.

The UK consumes around 2.25m tonnes of sugar each year, 75% of which is sold direct to the food industry. Since 1990, consumption of sugar in Britain has increased by a third.

How do I cut out sugar from my diet?

The main sources of sugar in the diet are soft drinks, confectionary, biscuits, cakes, pastries, puddings, fruit juice, yogurt, ice cream and dairy deserts. Cutting back on these foods will help to reduce your intake.

What is a sensible amount to eat?

The Government’s advice is to obtain no more than 5% of our daily energy intake from added sugar and sugar present in syrup, honey and fruit juice. In practice this means sugar intake should not be more than :

  • 30 grams (7 cubes) of sugar each day for adults and teenagers
  • 24 grams (6 cubes) for older children
  • 19 grams (5 cubes) for young children

…and finally

If you cut one high sugar food from your diet, replace it with a more nutritious food or snack such as a banana, nuts or a lower fat milk drink.

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[1] SACN Carbohydrates and Health Report. Public Health England July 2015

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